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Report 881: A Slow Trip to Italy for a Mother and Daughter

By stella from Brooklyn, New York, Fall 2005

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Page 7 of 16: A Heathen Weeps, the Heavens Open, and the Uffizi Wins

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The statues in the Piazza della Signora form a perfect line

Sunday morning dawned with rain, and lots of it. Not too bad, considering we had lovely weather for three straight days. Mom wanted to go to Mass, but the Basilica seemed shut tight. I decided to take an early, quick walk around the corner to a smaller church to see if there was a mass schedule posted. No luck. But as I re-entered the Piazza Santa Croce, or “our piazza,” as we have come to call it, I saw that the door to the Basilica was open! I trotted across the empty piazza and up the stairs, spotting a sign that says Mass will be at 9:30, 11:00 and 12:00. Mom would be pleased. I stopped into the bar/pizzeria that is a few doors down from us to have a quick cappuccino. It is really hard to get a bad cup of coffee in Italy, and in most cases it is excellent. This nondescript bar was no exception; the owner was positively sweet, talking me into a cornetto con marmelatta as well - and the cappuccino was creamy and luscious.

I decided I would attend Mass with Mom. (“Gee, maybe the walls of the Basilica will fall down,” she said). We proceeded to put on our Sunday best and were out the door just before 11:00. If you are ever in Italy, I highly recommend going to Mass and hearing it in Italian; it is almost like listening to a beautiful song for an hour. I have been a lapsed Catholic for some time now, and I admit it is not often that I am at a Sunday Mass. But I was moved, the same way that I am constantly moved whenever I step into an Italian church. Being inside the grand and breathtaking Basilica di Santa Croce, one of the most beautiful and historic churches in the world, only intensified my emotions. To be there under any circumstance is wondrous, but to sit on the very old (and hard, I might add) wooden pews, as have residents of this neighborhood for an unknown number of years before, and to hear the massive organ ring out as the Franciscan monks softly file past ... it is hard find adequate words to describe the experience.

So there I sat, listening to my mother recite prayers and responses in her now-perfect Italian, smelling the incense and candles burning, sitting on old wooden benches among residents of the Santa Croce district who come to Mass at this Basilica simply because it is their neighborhood church. My eyes began to well up almost uncontrollably, and they remained filled. There is something familiar and comforting to me about the Catholic Mass, despite whatever religious conflicts I have in my mind. Mass in the Basilica had that same familiarity, but along with it was the overwhelming sense of time and place. A Franciscan brother passed by in his brown habit, tied with a white rope, and offered a brown leather sack for coins. As I struggled to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Italian, I felt like a tiny thread woven into a huge tapestry of history.

We filed out, feeling energized and content. Our tour of the Uffizi was later that afternoon; we were to meet our docent at 3:15 in the Piazza della Signora. I decided that we should go to the grand Florentine café Rivoire for lunch, and then kill some time near the Ponte Vecchio. We strolled over under a brief patch of sunlight, and easily procured a table at Café Rivoire. They are famous for their ciocolato caldo con panna, or hot chocolate, which I will no doubt sample. But first we had some tramezzini, or sandwiches on soft, crustless bread, filled with roasted chicken, mozzarella and tomato. There was also a small, 6-inch mini-pizza to share, and some perfect proscuitto e melone. I wondered aloud if I have ever really tasted melon before; the cantaloupe was so sugary sweet, it practically begged for the salty proscuitto. This was one of those dishes that Americans may be wary of, because they have tried it at home with crappy melon and fake proscuitto. Here, the simple pairing was an epic masterpiece. It is easy to understand why these two flavors go so well together.

After these yummy snacks, we were ready for something sweet. Mom and I shared a slice of torta della nonna; Rivoire’s version consists of a semolina crust, filled with egg-y custard and topped with lots of sliced almonds. Mom insisted she didn't want any, but she managed to polish off 3/4 of it, which made me very happy. She was eating more while in Italy, her tiny frame benefitted from it every day, I thought. The hot chocolate was delicious. It wasn't thick, but very intense. The chocolate liquid was barely sweetened, so it blended perfectly with the lightly sweetened whipped cream on top.

We paid the check and still had an hour to kill, so I suggested a stroll to the Ponte Vecchio, which is just about two blocks away. Sure enough, not long after we stepped outside of Rivoire, the heavens split open and we were in the midst of a downpour. We huddled in the street along with all of the others caught in the torrent, then ducked inside a store to shop for gloves. Mom bought a pair of lined leather gloves for herself, and although I couldn't convince her to indulge in the cashmere lining, she was thrilled with her purchase. "Being on this trip is luxury enough for two lifetimes," she said. I wished right then and there that I could bring my mother to Italy every year.

The rain relented and we continued our stroll to the Ponte Vecchio. How pretty it was, even under gray skies! Before we knew it, it was 3:00 and time to make our way back to the Piazza. There, we met up with our docent from Context Florence, and a very nice couple from Florida joined us. The tour began with a brief history of the Piazza della Signora and a peek inside the Palazzo Vecchio before we headed into the museum. Thankfully, there is an elevator that we are allowed to use so that my mother can reach the galleries; she would have never been able to make to it up those stairs. The tour of the Uffizi is harder on Mom than either of us realized it would be; it lasted about three hours total, which was a long time for her to be on her feet. Towards the end, she had to sit down; luckily there was always a bench available for her to take a rest as we moved from room to room. I enjoyed the tour very much, but I was torn between sitting with her for company and keeping up with the group. Mom chased me away each time; she was content to sit in one room or another and admire all that was around her. The art is arranged chronologically at the Uffizi, and our docent gave us a good perspective on the evolution of the Renaissance. The museum was slightly crowded, but on a Sunday evening, it was not nearly as bad as it had been on my last visit, which had been on a Tuesday morning.

Poor Mom was really tuckered out by now; she was such a trooper to have make it through.

The slow walk back to the apartment perked us both up, and when we got back I quickly made us some dinner – tagliatelle again, with a sausage ragu I made the previous morning, a salad, and leftovers from our dinner out last night.

The rain swept out as quickly as it came in, and the following day would be clear and pretty. Mom gave me permission to strike out on my own, so I was looking forward to some solitary exploring while she rested up at “home.” We had only two more days in Firenze…how sad.

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